Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Freedom to Dream

In Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood, he writes “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” Chabon muses about the long passages of time when, as a child, he was able to roam free, inventing his own reality as much as exploring it, creating an emotional map of the places where things happened.

This emotional map is largely absent today in a time when children’s lives are circumscribed by schedules and “playdates”. For all our honest concern for our children’s safety and enrichment, we have largely removed that necessary freedom to explore, create and imagine from our children’s lives.

The Freedom to Dream

The Freedom to Dream

But children are resilient. And they are natural explorers. As Chabon writes, “Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure.” At a recent outdoor concert in a nearby park, I allowed my two young sons to drift away from me, only to discover them minutes later – one ankle deep in a nearby creek and the other halfway up a tree. They had no interest in listening to the music. They wanted to explore the boundaries of their world. They were playing out scenarios of adventure I saw on their faces and read on their lips as I discreetly watched them from the underbrush so I didn’t interrupt their explorations.

This desire for adventure is at the heart of our love of story. Even as adults, we feel a need to share the stories that inform our existence or explain to us, and to anyone who reads our words, the contexts and conditions of our lives.

Adventures are best created in the absence of structure. The essence of imagination is the freedom to dream. Just now the summer spreads before us like a glimmering, golden field. It is an invitation. Go forward and embrace it. Explore it with unstructured joy. Then write what comes to mind, adding details to enrich the map that little by little will tell the many stories of all our lives.

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Lessons from Poets

Poetry can feel, at times, as rarified as air, precious for its purity, its essentialness, its glittering, fluid, whimsical magnificence. It gives weight to simplicity and simplicity to weight, nourishing on levels more ephemeral and yet more visceral than prose.

As I write my novels, I have often pondered the poetry in my words. All writers work with rhythms, whether they intend to or not. There’s an inherent flow that makes a sentence or paragraph just right, or that forces us to half-consciously cut out a word or add one, that lets us know that there’s something missing right there – not necessarily a bit of action or a detail’s flourish, but a sound, a sensibility, a feeling. We search for it, hoping and trusting that our more prosaic muse will eventually find the perfect mix of meaning and form.

Poetry can teach us how to sift out that pure perfection. It’s like crystal. Like diamond. Dazzling, but hard to come by. Can we dig down that far inside ourselves to uncover those flawless jewels?

Since I first heard Jane Hirshfield read years ago at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I’ve been fascinated with her work. Her free verse moves with cadence and deep meaning, rather than following a prescribed meter or rhyme. Yet somehow she encapsulates the essence of her thoughts – of some of life’s deepest thoughts – in a few carefully chosen words. I often listen or read her work in wonder, longing to distill my own to such purity.

Ms. Hirshfield read again at the Poetry Festival last September. And though I wasn’t able to attend, we can all hear her now, thanks to YouTube. I particularly love her very brief poem, “A Cedary Fragrance.” In an expression so pure, she aims her words with a embroiderer’s delicate needle. As she speaks the closing line, I feel the precision of her thought piercing directly to my wisest mind.

Listen to her words. Enjoy them for their essence. And try to apply their lessons to your own work – embrace that semi-conscious awareness that each word effects your work profoundly, and that rhythms and careful phrasing aren’t merely troublesome necessities, but the most powerful tools of your craft.

Read more about Jane Hirschfield and other extraordinary poets at the GR Dodge website. Or subscribe, as I do, to Poetry Fridays.